May 21, 2016

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I am a big fan of the Hayao Miyazaki movie and own it on DVD, I'd never sought out the source material, but I started seeing recommendations for Diana Wynne Jones's novel so often that I figured I should check it out.

It's quite different from the movie, which is mysterious and dreamlike and follows a sort of inexplicable logic that sometimes dissolves into an apparently willfully opaque surrealism. Those are reasons why I love the movie.

The book is clear and reasoned, and for most of it, quite practical in its progression. That concrete, specific approach to magical whimsy is one of my favorite combinations, and when mixed with Sophie, the protagonist's cranky charm, the story has moments of achieving the tone of a classic like Mary Poppins or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's an exciting adventure in the first half, with the spell Sophie is forced to operate under really getting to the heart of some fear in children that hadn't quite been named. It constrains her and frees her at the same time, and that's quite an impressive feat.

Howl, the brash young wizard, has his high points of amusing fussy petulance, but I never fell in love with him, and I don't believe Sophie quite did, either. She had a more involved relationship with Calcifer, the fire demon, than she seemed to with Howl. Perhaps that's one reason why the story seemed to run off its rails about 3/4 of the way through. It gets muddied and dull, and the adventure which had so painstakingly been set up and populated fizzles.

Also, Sophie's sisters had become so literally interchangeable that I lost track of which one was which, and it didn't seem to matter. Her stepmother steps back into the story for no discernible reason, and I struggled to remember who she was. Poor Michael, the erstwhile wizard-in-training, has his story get short shrift, too. And we never get to meet the Witch of the Waste, really, before she's removed from the equation with what felt like unfair dispatch.

I'm tempted to read the further adventures of Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, etc., to see if the stories improve with time. This was half a terrific book, and I can see why the movie went its own way.

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